Persecution and economic hardship normal part of life for Holy Land Catholics

(Editor’s note: On Feb. 4-15, 51 pilgrims from in and around the archdiocese, including Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, traveled through the Holy Land. Following is a story about the Jerusalem portion of the pilgrimage. Quotes from pilgrims can be found here.)

(The Criterion/By Natalie Hoefer)

The Azraq family roots dig deep into the soil of Old City Jerusalem.

“Our house is about 300 years old,” says Anton “Tony” Azraq, 39, a Melkite Catholic who has lived in Old City Jerusalem his whole life. “It’s built on top of a previous structure that goes back to the 12th century, to the Crusader time.”

His family name, which means “blue” in Arabic, goes back much further, to the seventh century when Muslims invaded the Holy Land and made Christians wear blue belts for easy identification. (Related story: Tour guide gives pilgrims cultural, historical and archaeological insight on Scripture)

8387552026_942eb59ce1_bBut such deep Christian roots are at the risk of being severed in the Holy Land. Wars, laws, a poor economy and the high cost of living are driving Christians from the land where Christ began the Church.

This story looks at life in the Holy Land through the eyes of two Catholic Christians—Azraq, who served as tour guide for the archdiocesan pilgrimage, and Alfred Ra’ad, a shop owner in Old City Jerusalem.

Both men know the cross of persecution, and both long for help to keep a Christian presence in the land where “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14).

‘Caught holding the stick in the middle’

As an archaeologist specializing in the era of Jewish kings David and Solomon, who lived 1,000 years before Christ, Azraq loves “bringing artifacts to the light for people to see.”

He is also deeply devoted to his Melkite Catholic faith, proudly donning a necklace with a large cross … most of the time.

“In the 1990s, we were more free to show our crosses in the market, wear your cross outside,” he explains. “Nowadays, most Christians are hiding their identity when they are outside of the Christian area because they don’t want to be persecuted.”

Hiding one’s Christian identity was not always the practice in the Holy Land, says Azraq, a married father of four.

“Before, we [Jews, Muslims and Christians] co-existed in a better way,” he recalls. “Up to the 1990s, we didn’t feel much of this racism or persecution.

“The last 15 years, since the [United States] invasion of Iraq, it has been different. When president [George W.] Bush called it a Crusader war by mistake [at Camp David, Md., on Sept. 16, 2001], most of the Muslims started looking at us as Crusaders and that we shouldn’t be here. Since then started more of the fanaticism.

“And on the other side, on the Jewish side, they look at us like we are Gentiles.”

Azraq says Christians are “caught holding the stick in the middle,” not wanting to side with the Jewish-run state government for fear of being seen by Muslims as “collaborators,” yet not wanting to side with Muslims because “the Islamic movement is becoming more terrorist.”

According to Azraq, Christians in Israel simply “ask to be left alone, to keep our freedom of worship without having to be converted.”

But being Christian is costly—literally.

“In my time, elementary school for Catholic kids used to be free,” Azraq says. “Nowadays, public schools are either Islamic or Jewish. You will never find a public school that teaches Christianity.”

But Christian schools are now expensive, he admits.

“Most cannot afford to educate more than one or two children, so Christians are having fewer children.”

The high cost of education—and high cost of living in Israel in general—is exacerbated by the lack of income caused by people tending to only patronize businesses operated by those of their own faith, says Azraq. In a land boasting a mere 2 percent population of Christians, the financial strain is often too much.

“Most of the Christians are deciding to leave to find a better life somewhere else,” says Azraq, resulting in towns like Bethlehem dropping from an 80 percent population of Christians 20 years ago down to 20-25 percent today.

But Azraq has no intentions of leaving.

a“As a Catholic, I believe that I am very important in this part of the world because even though we’re a minority, that’s what keeps the churches open as churches and not museums,” he asserts.

Azraq spoke of the Israeli town of Nain, where the Christian population dwindled and the Catholic church was closed due to lack of members.

“We don’t want this to happen again in other important sites, specifically in Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and in Bethlehem,” says Azraq.

“We call it a mission for us to keep these places open for our brother and sister Christians to come on pilgrimage, and see the place where Jesus was born and the place where Jesus was raised from the dead.”

‘Save our existence in the land of Jesus’

Old City Jerusalem St. Francis Store souvenir shop owner Alfred Ra’ad was warm and friendly when the archdiocesan pilgrims patronized his store just inside the city’s New Gate.

But the 56-year-old married father of three seemed worn down.

In an e-mail exchange with The Criterion, he explained the reason for his condition.

“I feel very persecuted from Jews and Muslims,” the Roman Catholic man admits. “I feel treated as lower class in the city. There is discrimination in religion, social cooperation and jobs, high rent of apartments by Muslims, diverse heavy taxes and low income.”

Ra’ad’s income didn’t used to be so low. He writes that his store, owned by his family since 1960, used to bring in more than $500 each day. But in the last four years, he states, daily sales range from $20-$150.

He attributes part of the decrease in sales to a tramway that was built outside the New Gate, eliminating parking for buses that dropped off the pilgrims so vital to his business.

But the root cause goes much deeper, writes Ra’ad, back to 1987 with the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The Intifada lasted until 1994, causing a decrease in pilgrims to the Holy Land. The second Intifada, from 2000-05, didn’t help.

Other elements have factored into the economic hardship, Ra’ad explains, including the downturn of the world’s economy, the legal effects of local politics, and wars in the Middle East.

Having college-age children exacerbates the strain, Ra’ad admits.

But herein lies one glimmer of hope.

Through his and his family’s membership in the Franciscan-run St. Savior Church in Jerusalem, Ra’ad heard about the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land (FFHL).

The Franciscan Foundation of the Holy Land is dedicated to helping Christians remain present in the Holy Land. Many groups in the archdiocese, including the one that visited the Holy Land in February, have taken pilgrimages.

girlstudent“They gave my daughter a full scholarship [to college], which helped to have less expenses,” writes Ra’ad. “Truly, they help students to learn, to obtain a career for future life and to serve the Christian community here.”

He supports the work of the FFHL not just because of the scholarship, but because they “help financially to save our existence in the town [of Jerusalem] in the land of Jesus,” adding that “only about 6,000 Roman Catholics [remain] in Jerusalem.”

Ra’ad hopes to meet more members of the archdiocese face to face in the Holy Land. He encourages priests who [visit] to direct pilgrims to the “last 40 Christian souvenir shops remaining [among] the 1,000-plus Muslim shops.

“They need direct help and support so as not to emigrate more [to the point of] no more Christians in the Holy Land.”

(For more information about the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, log on to Last week’s story and photos about the Galilee portion of the pilgrimage can be found online at †